What do Algerian freedom fighter Djamila Bouhired, Carlos the Jackal, and Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, have in common? Other than the lawyer who acted in their defence, arguably very little. That lawyer is Jacques Verges, a man who has made a career from defending the “indefensible” on an international scale.
This documentary looks at his life through a series of interviews with him and those who have known him as clients and friends. The dialogue is interspersed with footage of some of the most dramatic moments of political violence in the period after the Second World War, forming a compelling, if not coherent, narrative.
Son of a Vietnamese mother and a French diplomat from the Indian Ocean island of La Reunion, Verges studied law in Paris and was a “school chum” of Pol Pot. He left the Communist Party over its support for French foreign policy in Algeria and created the collective of French lawyers in the service of the political doctrine of the Algerian National Liberation Front. He first came to the world’s attention in the 1950s with his defence of those accused in the Battle of Algiers.
The director, Barbet Schroeder, claims the film is in part a love story between Verges and Bouhired. They first met after she had been arrested, interned and tortured for 17 days following her role in the “Milk Bar” bombing. He was impressed by her dignity and conviction. His defence of her appears in the film to be the single moment in which his personal, political, and professional lives form a coherent whole.
Verges defended Bouhired using a strategy he describes as a “rupture defence”, in which the authority of the court is denied, the judge is insulted, and the accusers are accused. With reference to the torture and mass killings inflicted by the occupying forces, Verges sought to turn the tables and attack the French state for greater crimes than those for which his client stood trial.
Unlike many of those Verges would represent later, Bouhired had public opinion on her side. After she was sentenced to death, he published a manifesto “For Djamila Bouhired”, mobilised opinion on an international scale, and ultimately secured a pardon for her, and those accused with her. Shortly afterwards, they married and had two children.
In 1970 Verges disappeared for almost a decade. The film makes much of this mystery. What is more mysterious however is what motivates him from the point at which he re-emerges. Over the next several decades his client list stretches to include African dictators and Holocaust deniers as well as “the Jackal” and Klaus Barbie.
His basic approach is to be applauded. He takes the empty category of “terror” and contextualises it, places it in history, and compares it with the “legitimate” acts of those who stand as judge and jury. But the film raises the question of whether it is personal arrogance rather than political conviction than drives him in the last few decades of his career.
It seems there isn’t a brief Verges wouldn’t take if the stakes and the profile were high enough. Asked if he would defend Hitler, he replies, “I would even defend Bush, only if he’d agree to plead guilty.”
This is a fascinating documentary about an extraordinary career.
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